Writing for your audience

Unless you’re just writing for yourself, thinking about your audience is an important part of writing. It’s something I’ve been trained to do, and that I thought I was good at. But a couple of recent discussions have made me realise that I could do much better.

Thinking about my audience was a big part of my last job. They were labelled ‘customers’ not ‘audience’, but it came down to the same thing. After all, as a writer your audience are the customers for your work. While I was in that job I wrote and edited a lot of documents, and I was always thinking about the readers. How good was their grasp of written English? What things did we take for granted that they wouldn’t? Were we actually telling them what we thought we were telling them? How would font and format affect the reading experience?

When I’m writing fiction, thinking about audience is different. I write short stories to fit the requirements of particular markets, in terms of word count, genres, tone and content. If I come up with an idea that inspires me I think about what genre it fits into and what those readers expect.

Then there’s writing against expectations. I try not to fall into gender stereotypes in my stories, but that creates challenges. As I recently discovered when presenting a story to my writing group, readers picture a character the minute they’re mentioned. If that character doesn’t fit their default expectations – for example a soldier who’s female – then you need to make that clear quickly, or the reading experience will be disrupted later.

But a comment from glenatron on my post about editing made me realise my limitations. When I’m editing I don’t usually consider my audience, I just look for passages that don’t feel right to me. And I have a default picture of my readers, someone with a similar background and understanding of the world to me. But considering my response to a post by Liza of Classy Cat Books made me rethink this. There I was considering the extreme example of small children, but there are other assumptions we make about our default reader, beyond being an adult. If I want to reach anyone beyond middle class white British blokes like myself then I need to think about who else my audience could be, and how I write for them.

This is about thinking beyond yourself, putting your reader at the centre of your writing. It’s not a simple thing, or something anyone can perfect. It has as many facets as there are readers in the world. But it seems to me that it’s worth exploring more.

So, what do you think about this? If you write, how and when do you think about your audience? If you read (and these are written words, so I know you do) do you notice whether a book seems written for you, or perhaps more obviously when it really isn’t? What other thoughts do you have on the subject? Let me know in the comments – I’m only just starting to think about this, and am interested to get some other points of view.